Walk into the Cajun Experience on Loudoun Street in downtown Leesburg on a Wednesday night, you are sure to be greeted with a smile and the smell of authentic food from the Mississippi Delta.
Glance down around the customers’ waists, and you will likely see a firearm.
This is Open Carry Wednesday, the day at the New Orleans-style eatery when patrons are encouraged to bring their licensed firearms, and they’ll get a 10 percent discount on their meals.
This was the brainchild of owner Bryan Crosswhite, who started the special four weeks ago. Crosswhite is a native of Lafayette, LA, and said he has worked internationally as an economist, including in the Middle East.
“I’ve seen what the restricting of freedom is all about,” Crosswhite said. “It’s our legal right to carry. I want it to be [my customers’] right to carry in our restaurant.”
Crosswhite encourages his customers to carry licensed firearms every day, but the discount is only offered on Wednesdays. Many of those who come in are law enforcement and former military, he said, but others come in to enjoy the atmosphere among like-minded individuals.
One of those is Stan Gontarek, a defense consultant, here on a recent Wednesday carrying a SIG Sauer on his right hip. He was happily dining on a fried dish, and when he was asked what he thought about the Cajun Experience’s new policy, he gave a simple answer.
“Great,” he said. “It’s building a community of people with a common interest in firearms.”
Gun control politics have been nearing an all-time high since December’s Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, CT, with President Barack Obama making a push for increased regulations and gun-rights advocates pushing back.
Even locally, the gun control debate has some on opposite ends. Purcellville Mayor Bob Lazaro joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan advocacy group, on New Year’s Eve, while the Board of Supervisors has threatened to sever its ties with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments after COG voted to advocate stricter gun control laws.
Crosswhite already has seen some backlash from his customers. One couple told him, after seeing a sign posted in the restaurant about Open Carry Wednesdays, they would not be eating at his establishment again. Crosswhite paid for their meal.
“This couple got on my case,” he said. “Are they going to criticize me for my rights?” After being asked why he decided to give the couple their meal for free, he said, “I don’t need their money.”
He said his business has picked up since he took over managing the restaurant in December, before which, under control of his ex-wife, he said patronage had flagged. Wednesdays have gotten significantly more crowded since the advent of the special, and Crosswhite said customers sometimes thank him.
“They said it’s good that a business owner would take a stand,” Crosswhite said. “Why not do something special for those who want to support the second amendment?”
In the state of Virginia, gun owners are allowed to openly carry a weapon without a permit, and consume alcohol. Servers are usually careful with those carrying firearms when serving alcohol, Leesburg Police Chief Joseph Price said.
“The individual with a firearm can consume alcohol,” Price said, “but when you get intoxicated, that becomes a problem.”
Crosswhite and Gontarek, in separate interviews, said the Cajun Experience “is the safest place in Leesburg on a Wednesday night.” Price said he doesn’t believe that to be true.
“Based upon the statistics and the crime we see, that’s no safer place than any other part of our community,” he said, noting violent crime is a rare occurrence in Leesburg. “A lot depends upon who the people are with guns. There’s nothing wrong with responsible people carrying a gun within the limits of the law. When you have people in violation of the law, that might be a problem.”
Crosswhite has no trouble taking a stand on an issue, and he has no problem with a little publicity. Last Friday, Crosswhite tweeted from the Cajun Experience’s Twitter account at news outlets like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Time Magazine and the Huffington Post about Open Carry Wednesdays.
Crosswhite believes his position is likely to win his restaurant more customers than it will lose. Other restaurants have similar attitudes as the Cajun Experience’s—the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, a powerful gun-rights lobby, holds meetings to advise its members of which businesses are gun-friendly, Gontarek said—but few make stands quite like Crosswhite’s.
For now, the Cajun food-eating public seems to have largely embraced it. Crosswhite has a sign hanging near the bar where patrons often have their pictures taken. It reads “Guns are welcome on the premises. Please keep all firearms holstered unless the need arises. In such case, judicious marksmanship is greatly appreciated by all!”